Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Interview with Marissa du Bois


Monika: Today my guest is Marissa du Bois, an American software engineer working on AAA Games for a fortune 50 company. She is an award-winning LEGO maker and contributor to CodeProject.com. She is the inventor of multiple DIY LEGO electronic devices including two point-and-shoot cameras, a digital picture frame, a LEGO computer, and a self-orienting panoramic camera. Marissa has contributed multiple props for a series of commercials for the LEGO group. Marissa is an Ally-Award winning corporate LGBT employee resource group leader and helped influence an Amicus Brief in support of Bostock vs. Clayton County as well as the Business Statement for Transgender Equality. She is an avid gardener and lives in Oregon with her husband of 10 years. Hello Marissa!
Marissa: Hi thanks for interviewing me. I read your interviews frequently and I appreciate the candid first-person perspective of the people you feature.
Monika: How are you holding up in these crazy pandemic times?
Marissa: Doing well, got my first vaccine dose, and hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel soon. The quarantine has allowed me to focus a lot of my energy on engineering, gardening, and 3D printing hobbies, but I’m looking forward to getting out and spreading my wings soon.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Marissa: I grew up in New Hampshire and moved out to the Seattle area when I was a freshman in high school. I came out as transgender when I was around 16 but didn’t transition until I was about 21 due to an unsupportive family. My early 20’s were kinda rough, I dealt with some discrimination at work, some bullying, and being kicked out of home by my step-father for being queer.
I met my husband when I was about 27 at Seattle pride. After being discriminated against by the church from my childhood we chose to get married in New Hampshire's first African-American church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It’s a national historic site and is famous for hosting MLK as a speaker while he was in college. We’ve been married for about 10 years now and we just bought our first home together in Oregon.
Monika: I must say I am overwhelmed with all your talents and achievements as a high-tech lady. When did you discover that graphics software design would be your vocation? 
Marissa: Well, I’ve had a very wide-ranging career in tech. I always wanted to be a game engineer, but unfortunately, I don’t have a degree. I’ve always considered myself an auto-didact and a polymath and I like taking on new challenges. Moving from basic business software to working on graphics software seemed like one of the biggest challenges out there. I was actually quite lucky to land the career I have and in part, I got here through happenstance, a few doors and opportunities opened up for me and I knew it was a challenge I had to take.

"I’ve always considered myself an auto-didact and a polymath
and I like taking on new challenges"

Monika: How did you build up your professional career?
Marissa: My career evolved over time, I worked my way up from a warehouse for an apparel company to their IT department, this was around the time I started transitioning and moving up the corporate ladder was somewhat challenging for me. I moved to another company which let me build my software career-making accounting software for wineries, this was followed by a brief stint making automotive insurance software.
Now, I’m a senior graphics engineer in the games industry working for a Fortune 50. I’ve been working in gaming and graphics for the past 5 years and I’ve really enjoyed the opportunities to work on cutting-edge games and technology.
Monika: And your interest in LEGO?
Marissa: I grew up with LEGOs, especially LEGO technic, they stayed in storage once I moved out of my parents' house and I never really went back to it until my early 30’s. I started working with DIY electronics, and I decided it would be fun to try to combine my electronics with LEGOs. It’s been a really fun journey; I’ve since won awards with the LEGO group, my technical papers for my panoramic camera’s orienteering system also won multiple awards on CodeProject.com.
My work has been featured in at least 5 LEGO commercials on the official LEGO YouTube channel as well as the front page of their website. I really enjoy mixing art with science and LEGO gives me that outlet. I really like using a design-thinking approach to my builds and It’s helped me build my technical skills and build some pretty cool devices in the process.
Monika: It is amazing to see so many talented transgender women working for the IT business, just to mention: Lynn Conway, Kate Craig-Wood, Rebecca Heineman, Megan Wallent, or yourself…
Marissa: I’ve always respected Lynn Conway. She is one of my major inspirations. I’m not sure what it is with trans women in tech but for me as a young person prior to transitioning, computers were a form of escapism for me. They helped me cope with my gender dysphoria and I was able to teach myself how to program. At the same time, I’ve also been inspired by both Alan Turing and Edith Windsor for similar reasons.
Monika: You work in tech, is your company a transgender-friendly workplace?
Marissa: They’ve given me a lot of opportunities and really helped me blaze some trails as both a transgender person and a software engineer without a degree. I ran the Oregon chapter of our corporate LGBT employee resource group, where I organized 2 pride parades, helped LGBT+ employees navigate the workplace, and I’ve been influential in law and policy matters for LGBT+ employees across the globe. They have also given me a few opportunities to share my essays on LGBT issues as well as development opportunities at professional conferences like Out & Equal and Lesbians Who Tech.

"I really didn’t enjoy keeping
my life so private and eventually
I came out at my current company."

Monika: Marissa is not a common name. Why did you choose it?
Marissa: Well, it was somewhat on a whim, a friend at the time suggested it and I liked it because it was unique and was a departure from my dead name. However, it’s a very fitting name for me, it’s derived from the Latin word ‘Maris” meaning “Of the Sea”. I grew up in a seacoast town in New England called Seabrook and then moved to Seattle as a teenager so it fits my personal history as well as my interests in maritime history, sailing ships, and nautical devices.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Marissa: I came out to my step-mom at 16 and she was very supportive, I only stayed with her and my dad during the summers since we lived on opposite coasts. She kept my secret from my dad, but when I returned to the west coast I came out to my mother, and she was not happy that I had told my step-mom and this resulted in a family feud. I basically went back into the closet for the next several years until I was able to make it on my own.
In high school, I didn’t maintain a lot of close friendships because I knew I was going to transition due to my severe gender dysphoria. I was still living with my mom and step-dad in my early 20’s and when my step-father found out I was queer he called the cops on me and had me kicked out. My mom actually stepped up to try to get me an apartment. She still wasn’t supporting my transition but after a few years, she came around, and now she’s one of my biggest champions, and an ally of the LGBT+ community overall, she even helped start an LGBT employee resource group at her workplace.
Unfortunately, in the last few years, my dad and I have had a falling out over my gender, even after he walked me down the aisle for my wedding and generally supported me in the past. It’s really sad, and I’m not sure we will ever reconcile.
I’ve been fairly lucky professionally, though I had to live stealth for a while when I was getting my software career off of the ground. I knew we didn’t have explicit Title VII protections so I was cautious about being out at work. It took a big toll on me emotionally and socially since I was always guarded.
I really didn’t enjoy keeping my life so private and eventually, I came out at my current company and then helped fight for our Title VII protections in Bostock vs. Clayton County. In spite of the bad stuff I’ve dealt with I’ve managed to thrive both in my personal and social life, but also my career. Looking back I’m happy I transitioned and am fortunate to now have a full life as a woman and a wife. 
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Marissa: Yeah, I think so, it’s been effective at relieving my gender dysphoria over the long term, I do think it is an effective medical treatment, and I’m happy that the option was available to me when I was a young person. At the same time, I was a bit of a hot mess emotionally when I first started but after a few years, I mellowed out and am much more comfortable in my own mind and body.
My biggest fear is losing access to care, which would cause severe bone loss or other endocrinological issues. Given the current socio-political climate towards transgender people in the US and the active efforts to limit our access to care, it could go either way. My hope is that reason and compassion will help overcome the obstacles many transgender people face when accessing health care.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Marissa: Well there is a lot of social pressure to fit in regardless of whether you are cis or trans. For trans folks, it’s also compounded by gender dysphoria and the need to fit in as the gender you identify as and the beauty standards that go along with it. I don’t believe passing should be a necessary requisite to living your best life.

"I’ve never really been motivated by surgery and I tend
to like my natural looks."

However, I do understand what the judgment of others can feel like. When I was just starting to transition there was a time where I was somewhere in the middle of masculine/feminine and I was constantly being second-guessed by others. I imagine for many people this can make their lives harder to constantly be judged for things you can’t easily change about yourself.
Many people seem to associate being transgender with cosmetic surgery so I often find that people will question whether I’ve had any. I’ve never had cosmetic surgery, I don’t really plan to, but I don’t judge others who feel like it is best for their quality of life. I’ve never really been motivated by surgery and I tend to like my natural looks. At the same time, I also don’t consider most gender-affirming healthcare to be merely cosmetic.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Marissa: When I was young there weren’t very many transgender role models, growing up in the 90’s most of my exposure to transgender people was through daytime talk shows which unfortunately were very biased.
As I got older I learned about Lynn Conway. She's probably my biggest role model as another trans woman in tech, I wish I could be half as good at inventing as her.
I also have a lot of respect for Aimee Stephen’s, she got fired for trying to be herself and then took her fight to the supreme court while against the odds. She showed a lot of personal courage standing up for herself and her community and I’m proud I had the opportunity to support her while the case was pending before SCOTUS.
Monika: I was reading about the story of Aimee Stephen. She worked as a funeral director for nearly six years and was fired in 2013 after writing a letter to her coworkers about her decision to have gender reassignment surgery. Her historic lawsuit resulted in the Supreme Court's landmark decision that a federal civil rights law protects gay, lesbian, and transgender workers. Unfortunately, she didn't live to see the day of the Supreme Court's ruling. Did you have a chance to meet her in person during those litigation times?
Marissa: I actually never met her, but I knew the outcome of her case could potentially mean other transgender workers like myself could be subjected to a lifetime of being marginalized or discriminated against at work. I watched several of her interviews and I was always inspired by her wisdom and courage. It was sad when she died, I wrote an essay in remembrance that my company let me publish on our internal website. I was sad that she didn't live to see the ruling, but we did and she went down fighting, which I admire.

END OF PART 1

 
All the photos: courtesy of Marissa du Bois.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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